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Rather Odd

Dan Rather holds the dubious honor of being the only nationally-broadcast network anchorman that people vaguely expect to go berserk on the air. On the day Dan opens the CBS Evening News wearing his tie as headband and pledging his allegiance to our world's new leaders, the benevolent Gleetmen from Planet Mongo, we'll all nod knowingly and think, "Well, that was bound to happen eventually." Well-nigh his entire career has been one increasingly bizarre incident after another.

Even ignoring all the oddities that have become associated with Rather by external forces -- "Rather Biased" bumper stickers, for example -- the casual observer is left with a heaping mound of outright strangeness to account for, all of it stemming from the prickly, edgy man himself. Tom Brokaw may show up on Letterman and crack a joke; David Brinkley may appear bored and hostile during a segment designed to honor him, as he did last Tuesday on ABC; Sam Donaldson may come in to work dressed in nothing but garters and a feather boa. But Dan Rather is still, and seemingly always will be, ensconced at the top of the heap, weirdness-wise -- his recently gone-gray hair mussed with the feverish doings of the brain lodged beneath it.

Strangers seem to like to punch Rather, and he's been beaten up on the floors of political conventions and the streets of New York. Name one other person you know who's even gotten so much as a surrealistic phone call, much less professional pummelings from predatory thugs demanding to know the frequency, Kenneth. The one place Rather seemed safe was in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.

And, admittedly, an argument could be made that Rather is simply unlucky, that something in his biological makeup sends out strangeness pheromones that attract angry people, ready to issue crunchy beatings. But Rather -- described long ago by a colleague as "lightning in a bottle," brilliant and totally unpredictable -- has also managed to produce, through anger or pique or any number of unanchorly emotions, his own tar pits to nestle deeply into. Whether he's storming off the set (leaving a panicked CBS to broadcast low-rated blackness for some-odd and a half minutes) or bickering with a peeved George Bush (lending credence to all of those whose media criticism extends just beyond their tailpipe) or simply wearing understated cardigans (in a silly attempt to reproduce the years-won Cronkite trust with fuzzy pull-overs) Rather has managed to make news, instead of just report it, on a yearly basis. "Good night" not being Ratherly enough to end a broadcast with, he resorted to the openly bizarre "Courage" for a while. One can only boggle at what must have been going on in his personal life to inspire that.

But lately, Dan Rather has mellowed and -- aside from a failed attempt to graft him with ratings donor Connie Chung -- he's needed only bi-annual national elections to let off the vapors that haunt him. Rather, when not in newsman mode, has an easy-going Texas drawl that betrays his origins, not as an East Coast elite, but as a good old boy: once every two years the viewing public gets a chance to see the regionalism-spouting ghost of Lyndon Johnson occupy Rather and let loose.

On no other network than CBS could you find the symbol of their news department uttering lines like:

  • "The re-election of Bill Clinton is as secure as a double-knot tied in wet rawhide."
  • "We may see Michael Jackson's baby before we see some of the results in these House races."
  • "This race is as tight as a too-small bathing suit on a too-long ride back from the beach."
  • "This race is tick-tight."
  • "In terms of the Electoral College, if Texas isn't the whole enchilada, it certainly is a really big taco."
  • "Are the Democrats gonna be dancing the mandate Macarena tonight?"
The mandate Macarena? That thump-thump-thump you hear is Edward R. Murrow rolling in his grave.


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